Common Core Math Standards Intensify the Existing Reform Math Agenda

Published November 2, 2015

The Common Core math standards have poured gasoline on the math “reform” fire that has raged for the past 20-plus years. This is particularly true since the national dialogue about Common Core has become a repeating loop of poorly interpreted and executed standards.

To be specific: newspapers, television, and the Internet are full of stories about students bringing home math requiring complex ways of adding and subtracting numbers, which confound many parents. For example, an October 2, 2014 article in The Daily Signal discusses the “counting up” method of subtraction. Another video about how the Common Core is requiring young students to do addition problems via the “making tens” method also achieved viral Internet fame.

Old ‘New’ Math

Briefly, none of these methods is anything new, and all have been taught in one form or another for years. The difference, however, is they used to be taught after students mastered the standard methods of addition and subtraction, as a type of mental shortcut. Teachers gave students a few exercises to do using the new method. It was up to the student whether to use the method. Mastery of the alternative method was not required.

It is true the Common Core standards do not explicitly mandate students master these methods, but the sequence of the standards and how they are written create this perception just as they affect the agenda of math reform, which predates Common Core by at least two decades.

The reform math agenda continues, almost unabated: Understanding and explaining one’s answer is key; all else is dismissed as just doing without knowing. Getting an answer correct is not enough. Students who cannot explain the reasoning behind how they solved a problem—even one as simple as 2 + 3 = 5— are deemed not to understand math. The explanation is thought of as both the evidence of and the pathway to “deeper understanding.”

What happens in reality, however, is such explanations are something the student is given to memorize. Thus, “deeper understanding” is nothing more than “rote understanding” and, in my opinion (and probably others’), likely to lead to a deep hatred of math.

Undoing the Damage

It may be such interpretations will not cease until Common Core goes away. But maybe not.

If in the next few years Common Core does go the way of other such efforts (1960s New Math, the back-to-basics movement of the ’80s), the question remains: What will replace it?

My hope is the ill-suited approaches brought by the reform math agenda in the name of “deep understanding” are not so deeply embedded in American education that they will have taken permanent root. I am hoping whatever replaces them resembles the successful and well-written standards once in place in California, Indiana, and Massachusetts before Common Core superseded them. I hope we will undo the damage we’ve been seeing for the past two-plus decades. The mistakes being made nationwide are definitely not worth repeating.

Barry Garelick ([email protected]) has written extensively about math education in various publications, including The Atlantic, Education Next, Educational Leadership, and Education News. He recently retired from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and is teaching middle and high school math in California. He has written a book “Confessions of a 21st Century Math Teacher” which chronicles his experiences teaching math at a high school and a middle school in California during the period of transition to Common Core standards. 

Image by woodleywonderworks.

Internet Info:

Kelsey Lucas, “6 Steps to Subtract 2 Numbers: Common Core in 1 Photo,” The Daily Signal, October 2, 2014:

“Watch Common Core take 56 seconds to solve 9+6,” Rare, Sept. 4, 2014: